Tuesday, 19 December 2017

The US Black Movement Hits a Snag

 In this time of Donald Trump, following the 8 years of Barak Obama, Blacks in the United States have been struggling to come to terms with the gross turn of public policy leadership. Cornel West,[i] in an article published yesterday in The Guardian, has attacked Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes for The Atlantic as a neo-liberal Black writer whose pessimism in his latest book[ii] only reinforces White Supremacy. It is possible that, if you are a White Canadian, you have never heard of either of the two. However, they are major figures in the Black world.

 So far, the tremors have had perhaps little reverberation in Canada or Quebec, but they are significant in the United States and deserve our attention for what they could mean for the future of Black lives everywhere in the struggle against White Supremacy and justice for Blacks, Women and Indigenous peoples. Coates argues that White Supremacy is a founding principle upon which the United States is built from the very beginning and that it is unlikely that the Race issue will go away. Nor will the issues that turn upon Race, issues such as grinding poverty, exclusion, lack of housing, education etc. Cornel argues that the issues are complex including analysis of the economy, militarism and a host of other factors and that we must maintain our conviction that resistance is worth the effort.

I am not an expert in Race analysis. But I have read widely and to see someone of the stature of Cornel West take on an icon of the interpretation of Black life in the United States such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, leaves me breathless. The debate must continue; other voices must be heard. 

[i] He has taught at Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Union Theological Seminary.
[ii] We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Charles Dickens and Albert Camus

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a film that explores the writing of Charles Dicken’s
extraordinary tale, A Christmas Carol. It provides an opportunity, once more, to explore the deeper dimensions of our search for meaning and happiness in life. By chance, as it had its grand opening, I finished reading Albert Camus’ A Happy Death,[1] the first novel written by young Albert Camus, never published during his life and found only after his death. Camus drew on many aspects of the story in later novels, but even though he didn’t want I published, it is, in my opinion, a work that deserves attention. The protagonist is convinced that the goal of human life is to achieve happiness but finds it both elusive and complex. As in the case of A Christmas Carol for Dickens, in this story also there is much of Camus’ own journey and questioning.

The underlying message in A Christmas Carol is simple and straightforward: There are good guys and bad guys and, most wonderfully, the bad guy has a change of heart and becomes a good guy by abandoning his overriding greed for money. Its message? Happiness comes from generosity and compassion. The background is Dicken’s own life: His father was bankrupted and sent to prison when Dickens was young. He wrote the story to offset the possibility of his own bankruptcy after several literary projects failed.

In A Happy Death, Patrice Mersault is much darker than Scrooge and his journey toward a fuller life is much more convoluted. In the first half of the novella, Mersault is convinced that money does not make for happiness and lives in an extreme voluntary poverty. However, in the second half, money plays an important role in making happiness possible. He stops travelling and settles finally into a life of solitude. If the goal is to be happy, he searches first in the rhythms of nature and then gradually comes to appreciate a deeper connection with other people – something he has systematically avoided most of his life. The combination of both bring about a transformation that reaches a climax, paradoxically, in his death.  This is not a Dickensonian solution!

Dicken’s Christmas Carol and Camus’ A Happy Death both ground the meaning of life in happiness. In this, both are rooted in a tradition that goes back thousands of years to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Both agree that happiness is not to be found in piling up money. But, then, what is happiness and how is it to be found? For Dickens the answer is simple but not always easy to embrace. It is care for others, generosity, kindness. For Camus the conquest of happiness is not straightforward. It passes through two murders that provide the funds for a profound immersion in nature, in the sea in particular. In that immersion, Mersault finds happiness. By slowing down and savouring, through a turn to contemplation he finds joy. Yet, this very contact with the immensity and depth of the sea brings death! Camus is close to Plato and Aristotle while Dickens is inspired by the teaching of Jesus.  Is there truth in both?

[1] Albert Camus, A Happy Death, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1972 (originally published in French by Gallimard, 1971). This is a short work, less than 100 pages. There is an epub edition.